By Jon Lees
Saudi Arabia: Japanese jockey Kazushi Kimura is a rider who is going places again. The 21-year-old arrived in Canada in 2017 as a teenager with no job and barely any command of English but turned himself into an Eclipse Award-winning apprentice in North America two years later.
Now he has taken up the challenge of broadening his international experience by spending the winter riding in Saudi Arabia.
“Two years ago I was offered a contract to ride in Saudi Arabia but I had already decided to go to Gulfstream,” says Kimura, speaking from Riyadh.
“This year I decided to go to Saudi Arabia [to ride for Prince Sultan Bin Mishal]. I am here from now till the middle to end of March. I started last week because I had to do quarantine first.
“My owner has around 17 horses so it’s difficult to get a lot of rides. I am going to try to get other rides but because of my contract I cannot do too much riding for other people.”
Kimura’s first two rides finished out of the money but he enjoyed his experience of the King Abdulaziz racetrack. “The dirt track is beautiful and all the races have around 20 runners,” he says.
“I’ve never ridden with so many runners as in North America the fields tend to have around eight to 12 runners. That’s a new experience for me.”
Kimura graduated from Japan’s jockeys’ academy but instead of riding in his home country, where his parents run a Hokkaido training centre, he decided to try to develop his career at Toronto’s Woodbine racecourse.
It took him a while to get going but once he had ridden his first winner in June 2018 his business picked up rapidly.
He rode a five-timer that October and finished the year riding 104 winners. In 2019 his tally was 148, which earned him an Eclipse Award for the outstanding apprentice, and in a Covid-affected 2020 season he rode 85 winners, finished third in the Woodbine standings and recorded his first G1 victory on Gretzky The Great in the Summer Stakes for two-year-olds.
“I like a challenge,” he says. “When I went to Canada as an 18-year-old I had never spoken English before. But when I had the time I read a book and watched trackwork, and the English is getting better all the time. What’s important is getting more experience.
“I can ride in Japan when I am older, but now I am 21 years old I am thinking that while I am young I want to see the world, and ride in many places like Hong Kong, the United States, Europe, not only Canada.”
Like he was when he first arrived in Toronto, Kimura is on his own in Riyadh, the only Japanese jockey among a colony of mostly local and South American riders.
“I am by myself,” he says. “I have been given a car and a hotel room where I can stay all the time. I have been enjoying getting out and seeing the desert and lying by the pool. It’s a beautiful place.”
One of Kimura’s most treasured memories was riding for Queen Elizabeth after he was picked by William Haggas to partner the Queen’s Magnetic Charm at Woodbine in 2019. The pair finished second in the G2 Canadian Stakes.
“I was surprised to get the ride but my agent got a phone call from William Haggas,” he recalls. “Then my agent called me to say I was riding for the Queen. That was a magic moment.
”At the end of March I am going back to Canada,” he adds. “This year I want to be champion rider in Woodbine and ride more big race winners in races like the Queen’s Plate, Woodbine Mile, Canadian International.
“Last year I rode in more graded races and step by step from starting two years ago things have been getting better and I am not finished yet. I want to win more G1s and experience more challenges in the world.”
• Visit the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia website